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Thea Astley: An Item from the Late News

This novel is narrated by Gabby Jerrold, a somewhat wayward young woman who lives in the wittily named fictitious Queensland town of Allbut. She is, according to her father, a bloody silly girl. Gabby lived with her parents and her brother, Jam, but then went off on her travels, living in communes, painting, moving from man to man but never settling down. She even married one of the men but can barely remember his first name, let alone his second name. She came back, had something of a breakdown and then set off again in her travels, this time elsewhere in the world. Whatever it was that she was looking for, she did not find it and came back to Allbut. She is now bored and living with her parents again, as is Jam, who never left.

Allbut has not changed much since she left. It considers itself a clean decent town though we might consider it narrow-minded, petty, racist and bigoted. The first week after her return, there were three funerals. Archie Wetters, who was a jockey, died and to the surprise of everyone but Gabby, turned out to be a woman. Gabby knew because she had once poked around his/her shack and found letters addressed to her as Clementine. However, Gabby had told no-one of her findings. However, this book is, to a great extent, about Wafer.

Wafer was the son of an Australian man and a Swedish woman. They had been in London during the war and young Wafer had seen his father killed, presumably hit by a doodlebug. Since that time, he had had a mortal fear of bombs and was particularly traumatised by the atom bombs that were dropped on Japan. Since then he has drifted around the world. Gabby, who tries to relieve her boredom by finding out about the lives of newcomers, has picked up many details of Wafer’s life, partially from Jam, who has obtained the information from Wafer, as they drink together in the local pub, and partially from other sources. It is almost certainly only partially reliable. Wafer has finally ended up in Allbut (or, more specifically, some ten miles outside Allbut), believing it the perfect place to build a bomb shelter and that is what he sets out to do.

However, Wafer does not really fit in with Allbut. We know from very early on in the book that something drastic has happened and that Gabby was implicated in some way, as she tells us so. We also know that the locals do not take too much to Wafer. He helps strangers, he is friendly with the aborigines and drinks very little, if at all. The police sergeant, in particular, has it in for him. Wafer befriends other outsiders. There is Smiler Colley and his thirteen year old daughter Emmeline. Smiler’s wife had died of cancer, so he is bringing up Emmeline. He had had a chequered career as an architect and has ended up in Allbut. Moon is another drifter who has landed in Allbut. He may be from Louisiana but may not. He lives in an old bus on Wafer’s property. He is a fossicker, i.e. someone who does casual and often illegal mining. When Moon sees a large gemstone in Wafer’s shelter, he is impressed, as he has recognised it as a valuable corundum. He is somewhat annoyed that Wafer cannot remember where he found it so he sets off to explore the area to see if he can find it. He cannot. When the rest of the town get wind of it, there is a strong feeling that this is what is needed for a town which has almost died to be able to revive and Wafer has an obligation to remember where he found the stone and to tell other people, so mining can restart.

There is an incident between Moon and Emmeline – Moon finds her bathing and says that he wants to see her naked but denies doing anything. Meanwhile, Smiler has to go to hospital so Wafer agrees to look after Emmeline. When Wafer finds them together wandering around naked, he is jealous and is determined to have his revenge. However, for Moon and most of the people of the town, finding more gemstones is key and they are determined that Wafer should show them where he found his.

This is another first-class novel from Astley. The theme is clear. The story of the outsider, the person who is somewhat different from the crowd, not fitting in, while the crowd come together to get their way, even though some of the individuals – Gabby in particular but she is certainly not the only one – are aware that their actions are far from exemplary. Indeed, for much of the book, Gabby regrets her role in the denouement. While we have a rough idea of what is going to happening, Astley skilfully keeps us guessing as to the details till the very end. While the crowd versus the different outsider is certainly to be found elsewhere in literature – Day of the Locust is an obvious example – this is a very fine example.

Publishing history

First published 1982 by University of Queensland Press